(NEW YORK) — The U.S. has swapped WNBA star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior U.S. official.
The basketball star was taken into custody at a Moscow area airport in February in possession of vaping cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia.
Griner pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to nine years in prison on Aug. 7. She appealed the sentence, but was quickly rejected in October.
Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:
Dec 08, 1:07 PM EST
Paul Whelan calls CNN from prison
Paul Whelan called CNN from prison on Thursday, saying he’s “happy that Brittney is going home today and that Trevor [Reed] went home when he did — but I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Whelan said he’s “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release,” adding, “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years, said his message to Biden is: “This is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly, and I would hope that he and his administration would do everything they could to get me home. regardless of the price they may have to pay at this point.”
Biden said Thursday that the prisoner swap was “not a choice” between Brittney Griner and Whelan.
“Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release we are not giving up. We will never give up,” he said.
“We’ll continue to engage the Russians on Paul, and we’ll continue to look at everything possible to bring him home,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken added.
-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson
Dec 08, 12:38 PM EST
Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s WNBA team, releases statement: ‘She’s on her way’
The Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner’s WNBA team, celebrated their star player’s return Thursday.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the team wrote on Twitter. “The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.”
Griner has played her entire nine-year career with Phoenix, making eight All-Star teams and winning the WNBA title in 2014.
The team had posted each week, saying how many days Griner had been in detention in Russia and continuing to advocate for her release. Teammates like Kia Nurse, Brianna Turner, Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy tweeted their relief at Griner’s release.
“BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come, and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come,” the Mercury said in its joint statement with the Phoenix Suns.
“We no longer have to Bring BG Home — she’s on her way,” they concluded.
Dec 08, 12:29 PM EST
Griner headed to Brooke Army Medical Center
Brittney Griner is en route to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a spokesperson at the base confirmed to ABC News. She’s expected to arrive late Thursday night or early Friday, according to the base.
-ABC News’ Gina Sunseri and Ben Gittleson
Dec 08, 11:28 AM EST
WNBA, NBA commissioners praise release
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert applauded the release of Griner, an eight-time league All Star, and said she showed “extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.”
“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” Engelbert wrote in a statement.
The WNBA celebrated Griner all season, putting her No. 42 on every court and even having every player in this year’s All Star Game wear her number. Many players spoke out throughout the season for her release.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who had also consistently pushed for Griner’s release, said in a statement, “Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends. We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”
Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP and a teammate of Griner on both the U.S. national team and Russian squad UMMC Ekaterinburg, had posted a plea for Griner’s release every day on Twitter, counting the days and tagging President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and the White House in the posts. On Thursday, she wrote, “BG is FREE!!! 294 days and she is coming home!!!”
Dec 08, 9:22 AM EST
Griner negotiations were ‘painstaking,’ Russians treating Whelan differently: Biden
The road to Griner’s release involved “painstaking and intense negotiations,” President Biden said as he thanked many across his administration who “worked tirelessly to secure her release.”
“She’s relieved to finally be heading home and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma,” he said. “She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”
Biden said Griner landed in the United Arab Emirates and that the country helped facilitate the transfer.
Paul Whelan was not part of this exchange, the president said, adding, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said. “We remain in close touch with Paul’s family — the Whelan family — and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”
“They have to have such mixed emotions today,” he continued. “And we’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul Whelan. I guarantee that. I say that to the family. And I guarantee you. I urge Russia to do the same to ensure that Paul’s health and humane treat are maintained until we can bring him home. I don’t want American to be detained one extra day if we can bring that person home.”
Dec 08, 9:20 AM EST
Blinken says Russia not willing to release Paul Whelan
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he’s grateful to everyone “who worked tirelessly” to bring Brittney Griner home, but lamented that Paul Whelan and his family “continue to suffer needlessly.”
“Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney,” he said in a statement. “We will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones.”
Dec 08, 9:02 AM EST
Biden says Griner will be home within 24 hours
President Joe Biden confirmed that WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way back to the U.S. and will be back within 24 hours.
The president said she’s in “good spirits.”
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Biden said.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia held under intolerable circumstances, Brittany will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and — and she should have been there all along,” he said.
A senior U.S. official told ABC News that Biden signed off on the prisoner swap last week.
Dec 08, 8:59 AM EST
Whelan family disappointed he wasn’t included in swap
The brother of Paul Whelan, an ex-U.S. Marine currently being held in Russian prison, said they were told beforehand he would not be included in the swap and were “able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us.”
“At some level, our family has steeled ourselves for this likelihood,” Whelan’s brother, David, wrote in a statement. “And I think, as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive. If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance.”
“In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody,” he added. “It’s not like there aren’t plenty around the world.”
David Whelan also made sure to note he and his family were happy Griner has been released and said he knew the cases “were not intertwined.”
“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home,” he wrote. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
The Whelan family issued a similar statement in April when U.S. citizen Trevor Reed was freed from Russia in a prisoner swap. David Whelan alluded to that in his statement Thursday, saying, “The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.”
Dec 08, 8:53 AM EST
Cherelle Griner calls past months ‘one of the darkest moments of my life’
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, called the past months “one of the darkest moments of my life,” but flashed a large smile on her face knowing “BG” will be home soon.
“Today I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,” she said as she stood alongside President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It’s a happy day for me and my family,” she said.
Dec 08, 8:45 AM EST
Lavrov confirms swap, Putin pardoned Griner
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Griner was released and the prisoner exchange was carried out at Abu Dhabi Airport.
“For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of V.A. Bout,” Lavrov said in a statement. “Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian in the exchange scheme. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot.”
“As a result of the efforts made, it was possible to agree with the American side on the organization of the exchange of V.A.Bout for B. Griner,” he continued.
The U.S. has said for months it had offered Bout as part of a prisoner swap for Griner and Russian detained ex-Marine Paul Whelan.
Ombudsman of the Russian Federation Tatyana Moskalkova said Putin pardoned Griner before her release in the swap and she and Bout “should not serve the rest of their sentences in their respective countries.”
Dec 08, 8:34 AM EST
Who is Viktor Bout?
Griner has been swapped for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior U.S. official.
Bout was arguably the world’s best-known illegal arms trafficker and his capture in 2008 at a hotel in Thailand came at the end of a nearly decade-long hunt by the U.S.
Bout, 55, emerged as a kingpin in the global illegal arms trade during the 1990s, accused of fueling some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, particularly in Africa. Sourcing weapons from the huge stockpiles of the collapsed Soviet Union, the Russian used a fleet of Soviet-built transport aircraft to supply vast quantities of arm, often circumventing international embargoes.
Dec 08, 8:27 AM EST
Biden speaks to Griner aboard plane
President Joe Biden shared a photo of himself talking on the phone to Brittney Griner from the White House, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, saying she was on a plane, safe and headed home.
He is also shown hugging Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
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